Planning for accessibility and compliance
Table of contents
In short, compliance is making sure your Web site or Web application conforms to all appropriate standards that apply. This may seem simple enough, but you may find determining which standards apply daunting, and in practice, those standards may also have different interpretations. Regardless of these issues, Web standards help ensure that everyone has access to the information we are providing and makes Web development faster and easier.
Compliance is one aspect of accessibility, which makes it easier for people with special needs to use the Web, but there are also many practical reasons for developers to be concerned with Web standards. While search engines can do a better job of indexing sites, browser-specific code often doubles or triples the development effort.
Standards may seem limiting but many of the current uses of the Web would not be possible without widespread standards compliance.
- HTML 4.0 - Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is used for adding structure to text documents.
- Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a markup language like HTML, but instead of having a single, fixed set of elements, it allows you to define your own.
- XHTML 1.0 is a reformulation of HTML as an XML application.
- HTML 4.01, and being technically stricter because of XML's influence.
- Cascading style sheets (CSS) are a mechanism for changing the appearance of HTML or XML elements.
- Document Object Model Level 1 (DOM 1) allows the full power and interactivity of a scripting language.
Compliance is just the first step in the goal of accessibility. The broad definition of compliance means compliant applications are accessible to a greater range of devices and applications. These devices and applications can reinterpret compliant information for a broader audience, for example into voice by page readers or reuse through mash ups.
In many countries, businesses and organizations are legally required to ensure that their services, including Web sites and other media, are accessible to everyone regardless of disability. Such disabilities may include a vision, hearing, physical movement, or reading and comprehension abilities.
The following examples of legislation have provisions requiring physical accessibility:
- In the U.S., under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
- In Australia, Disability Discrimination Act 1992
- In the U.K., the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
Special guidelines have been created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to cover accessibility of Web sites. In conjunction with their guidelines, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) have defined three standards of accessibility for Web sites - Single A, Double A and Triple A. Single A is the most basic standard to which all Web sites should comply.
Reasons to consider accessibility
Your business should think about accessibility for the following reasons:
- Avoid legal disputes
If your site does not conform to legislation (see above), then you could be the target of legal action against you for not ensuring your Web site is accessible.
- Reach a wider audience
Currently you probably unknowingly exclude some visitors to your Web site. Turn those users into customers and you will grow your business further.
- Gain the competitive edge
If your Web site is accessible to all when your competitors' Web sites are not, you gain an immediate advantage over them.
- Enhance your image
Negative reports have been in the press about companies who have not tried to make their products and services accessible to all. Taking positive action should have the reverse effect and enhance your image in the marketplace.
- Improvements for all
To meet some of the required standards, coding enhancements need to be made. This has the additional advantage of improving compliance with new browsers and devices and potentially improving overall performance for all users.
If you already have Web sites or applications, audit them to see what actions you need to take to bring them in line with the W3C standards.
If you are developing new projects, you can refer to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This organization developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which explains how to make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. Web "content" generally refers to the information in a Web page or Web application, including text, images, forms, sounds, and such. The WCAG is separated into three levels of compliance, A, AA and AAA. Each level requires a stricter set of conformance guidelines, such as different versions of HTML (transitional vresus strict) and other techniques that need to be incorporated into your code before accomplishing validation.
Tools are available to help assess Web sites against these standards. See the Human Ability and Accessibility Center
Online tools exist that help developers to submit their Web site and automatically run it through the WCAG guidelines and produce a report, stating whether they conform to each level of compliance. In addition, commercial software is available with similar functionality such as the IBM Rational Policy Tester Accessibility Edition. Also many development tools such as Adobe® Dreamweaver®, IBM Rational tools and Eclipse, have facilities or plug-ins to support compliance with accessibility standards.
To comply with accessibility standards, consider including the following concepts in your design:
- (X)HTML validation from the W3C for the pages content
- CSS validation from the W3C for the pages layout
- At least WAI-AA (preferably AAA) compliance with the WAI's WCAG
- Compliance with all guidelines from Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act
- Use HTML Access keys
- Semantic Web Markup
- Supply a high contrast version of the site for individuals with low vision
- Provide alternatives (transcript) for any multimedia used on the site (video, flash, audio, etc.)
For more detailed information, see Web accessibility developer guidelines from IBM
Accessible Web sites and applications should include a Web accessibility statement on the site to explain conformance, special facilities, and the commitment to accessibility.